The structure of Iraq's politics during the Hussein years, when the minority Sunnis held power and the Shi`a were an oppressed majority, laid the foundation for what could have been a civil war once the regime was toppled. Yet this hasn't happened--and the reason is not necessarily encouraging. What has largely united Sunnis and Shi`a is the increasingly intense opposition to the U.S.-led occupation. In fact, most Iraqis believe the United States' major accomplishment since removing Hussein from power has been unifying Iraqis against what most of them believe is an unjust occupation.
Religion plays an important role in this situation, for three reasons: first, the more religious people are, the more likely they are to oppose the occupation, specifically on religious grounds. This is because radical Muslims are particularly influenced by the Medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya, who wrote after the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols. He viewed Christians and Jews as allies of the Mongols and as threats to the security and purity of Islam. The latest radical view of Islam sees a new threat of occupation by outside forces.
Second, it is impossible to separate religion from nationalism in Iraq (or most other countries for that matter), which means that while many observers feared the Shi`a might opt for some kind of independent state with strong ties to Iran, the reality is that most Shi`a are also strong Iraqi nationalists.
Third, in the context of the intense violence and chaos plaguing the country for the last year, strongly (and usually conservatively) religious people remain among the few Iraqis willing to protest the occupation. And because most of the protesters are not just young, angry, religious and armed--but also men--the situation is distorting the real picture of Islam in Iraq. The protesters are shutting women out of the public sphere just when women's voices are needed most.
This situation was made clear on the first anniversary of the invasion of the country, when only a few thousand people, almost all men, Sunnis and Shi`a together, marched through the streets chanting anti-Jewish and anti-U.S. slogans. Everyone else was too scared to appear publicly. And when, for example, U.S. soldiers patrol the slums of Sadr City in Baghdad removing pictures of Moqtada' al-Sadr, for whose father this neighborhood was named, it provokes resentment and fuels religiously motivated violence against the coalition.
This shared opposition to the U.S.-led occupation has motivated Sunni-Shi`i solidarity, despite violence between the groups. For example, in a Baghdad hospital in March, a paralyzed, respirator-bound Sunni imam begged whoever would listen not to assume the person who shot him was Shi`i--and even if he was, to consider that person an agent of the United States rather than someone with religious motivations. Not far outside central Baghdad at the Mother of all Battles (Um al-Maarik) mosque, Sheikh Harith Suleiman al-Dhari, one of the most powerful Sunni religious figures in the country, told a group of journalists that the enemy was America, not the Shi`i population.
Yet there is another factor uniting Sunnis and Shi`a, in addition to the U.S. occupation: their shared antipathy toward the Kurds, specifically against the autonomy enjoyed in Kurdish regions and their close relations with the United States. This has produced an Arab-Kurdish split that is much more active than any Sunni-Shi`i conflicts. Indeed, most Arab religious leaders have for months been issuing dire warnings about their willingness to use significant violence to prevent the Kurds from winning too much independence in the "new Iraq."
But America is still the main enemy. Even in the moments after the Sunni suicide attack during the important Islamic holiday, Ashura, that killed dozens of Shi`a outside a mosque, its loudspeaker blared: "We blame the Americans, let's expel the Americans, let's unite to expel them from Iraq, let's unite as one religion."
Sheikh Hussein, of the Dulami tribe of western Iraq (prevalent in the town of Abu Ghraib, home of the notorious prison), is one of the most powerful Sunni sheikhs in the country. During a recent visit to his home, he recited an ancient poem as American helicopters flew low overhead, shaking his house to its foundations. The poem is about a woman sitting at home during the crusades, while the crusaders break into her house and take her to jail to rape her.
This analogy brings up three crucial points for understanding the opposition to the U.S. presence: first, the imagery of Iraq as a woman depicts the powerful feelings of emasculation and humiliation that so many Iraqis feel. Second, the idea of being raped-which revelations of torture and rape at Abu Ghraib make concrete-has been used by Iraqis of all political and cultural stripes to describe their feelings both under Hussein and under the post-Hussein government. As one Iraqi explained, "we feel like we've been raped twice: first by Hussein and now by the United States." He said this last July, long before the Abu Ghraib scandal. Finally, there is the notion of the occupation as part of a crusade, a clear allusion to historic Christian-Muslim violence, which helps fuel extremist religious sentiments in response.
Complicating the picture is the fact that Iraq's Shi`a are less hostile to democracy than Sunnis. The main reason is that in a democracy they have an absolute majority and will control the country's future. Because of this, it is not surprising that religious leaders like Ayatollah Sistani, the most powerful religious leader in the country, preaches moderation and democracy-at least in public. But not all observers buy Sistani's public stance in occupied Iraq as reflecting what his positions will be once Iraq has "full sovereignty." According to one of the most senior Western journalists in the Middle East, and one of the few Western reporters to interview Sistani at length, the Ayatollah's true aims are much more conservative and even allied with his home country of Iran. But because he understands the balance of power, he's happy to let al-Sadr wear himself out while portraying himself as a stabilizing force.
Even religious figures specifically targeting college-educated Iraqis use a militant tone. Sheikh Muhamad al-Yaqubi, another student of the late Mohammed Sadiq Sadr and a rival to Sadiq Sadr's grandson, targets universities to obtain an educated following. Yet in his books he has labeled America as the awar al dajal, the Muslim version of the anti-Christ.
Shared opposition to an external enemy might be a powerful unifier, but it doesn't provide a foundation for a democratic Iraq. Many religious leaders understand this, especially Shi`is. And that's why for every Ayatollah Baghdadi-a mid-ranking Ayatollah in Najaf who is an avid support of Moqtada' al-Sadr and threatens "jihad against all infidels until they've left our land"-there's a religious leader like Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi, the imam of the Shi`i Qadhimiya mosque in Baghdad. Sheikh al-Khalisi has gone out of his way to push for democracy and non-violent resistance to occupation. In fact, as violence against foreigners began to pick up in the spring, he went out of his way publicly to welcome aid and peace workers and to ask Iraqis to protect them.
Ultimately, the dynamics of Sunni-Shi`i relations are more about politics than religion or ethnicity. "Who's Sunni and who's Shi`i? You tell me," said a Shi'i relief worker. "My mother is a Sunni, my father a Shi`i; I have `mixed' relatives throughout my family, and most Iraqi families are like this." This mixing extends to the Kurds as well, who can be Sunni, Shi`i and even Jewish or Christian (although the latter two in increasingly small numbers). But if we look at the rhetoric of popular and even intellectual religious periodicals-along with CDs and DVDs of sermons by leading religious figures-it becomes immediately clear that they contain intense suspicion and animosity between Sunnis and Shi`a.
For all the talk by leaders on both sides of Sunni-Shi`i solidarity, the reality is that until they found a common enemy in the United States, both sides had been escalating a war of insults and warnings about violence against each other. At the same time, they rage against "America and the Jews," as well as against "globalization" as a tool for the increased power for both.
The question is, which brand of hostility will win out-or will a positive identity emerge?
Most Iraqis are probably like one of the people we talked to-a Shi`i school teacher from Baghdad who also works as a UN translator. He equally hates the occupation and Moqtada' al-Sadr and his "band of thugs and thieves," loves working with Americans who sincerely want to help rebuild his country, and has little time for the thousands of Iranian Shi`a who have streamed into Iraq, bringing prostitutes with whom to set up "temporary marriage" hotels for Iraqi Shi`i men looking for a religiously sanctioned way to commit adultery. He just wants to reopen his rice processing factory, forced into bankruptcy by the unending international economic sanctions imposed during the last decade.
It will take an immediate reduction of violence by the new government as well as by insurgents, a true return of Iraqi sovereignty, an end to civilian casualties, and a courageous generation of Iraqi leaders-religious and secular alike-if a democratic political culture is going to take root. Iraqis and the world now have seven months until the new Iraq holds its first elections to create a foundation on which to build their new reality.